Recruiting DBAs for DevOps

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Experienced DevOps professionals have the responsibility to assimilate new people into the movement. DBAs coming on board need to understand (and possibly be convinced) that DevOps is about improving and quickening a continuous flow of software or web service improvements designed to provide a richer customer experience, abounding with excellent performance and extreme availability. DBAs need to change many habits to blend traditional work into the DevOps model. This article examines recruiting DBAs for DevOps.

DBA “Undersight”

DBA work has been a “black box” for too long that can seem like “magic” to everyone else. Reality shows that DBA scripts, database performance configuration changes, login triggers, and other DBA outputs are not scrutinized enough nor managed properly. The change advisory board (CAB) team may ask a question or two about why the change is needed, but many CAB members probably do not have the required knowledge to question the change enough to understand the potential harm. I hear what you are thinking, “The CAB does not have the technical experience to interrogate most changes.” I agree, but I also maintain the position that the CAB members see fewer database changes (compared with application changes) and fail to realize that database change mistakes tend to lean toward catastrophic. I believe it’s because the CAB should not be evaluating changes. The product owner and DevOps team members should know when to deploy because they intimately know the readiness of the code, understand the consequences of failure, and are working the backlog based on value. DevOps protects the teams from consequences if the teams abide by the mandates to excessively test to code and never allow a defect to be deployed into production. DBAs and DevOps team members surely agree to this value proposition, not needing oversight for releases. You’ll have to persistently engage the DBAs to shift expectations in order to incorporate their work into the release cycle.

“Bridg-ers”

Although DBAs fortunately have the rare ability to bridge the gap between development and operations, they have been detrimentally overlooked in many companies that deploy DevOps practices. A DBA’s ability to interrogate code and construct a resilient, well–performing database environment uniquely defines the capabilities needed for DevOps. DevOps requires transformation from organizational silos defined by a technology skill set to process-driven, continuous flowing work streams that are empowered by collaboration and automation. DevOps is about speed, delivery time, continuous integration and deployment, release cadence, and superior customer experience. Although metrics are critical for measuring customer experiences such as application responsiveness, they are also needed to measure release success rate, software defects, test data problems, work, and more. DBAs tend to be strong technical leaders who provide insight into coding best practices, host platform configurations, database performance improvements, data security and protection. To be successful, DBAs have to communicate, collaborate, teach, and learn while continuously improving database performance and availability. The job often includes having to meet with development to discuss poor performing code, index requirements, or execution plans to recommend code remediation. These “normal” interactions are imperative to the success of DevOps, leaving me perplexed about why DBAs were not one of the first operations team members asked to join the DevOps movement.

Transition

Understanding that DBAs are “built” in significantly different ways should help with the approach. Many DBAs were once developers, others came from various infrastructure roles, and still others have always been DBAs. Determining which DBA type is easier to bring into the fold is a fool’s game. DBAs are people, and people are surprisingly unpredictable. One ex-developer DBA may be excited to finally be able to use both skillsets to help advance DevOps, whereas another may be perturbed by having to dig up old skills she had hoped were long dead and buried. Individually interviewing and evaluating each DBA may be necessary. Much like interviewing potential employees, discernment is needed to assess fit, training needs, and potential disruptive factors that may impact the existing DevOps team members. The right leaders and SMEs need to be involved and dedicated to the time and effort needed to integrate DBAs. Rest easy; the good news is that even if some DBAs may resist, they all want to provide value by improving the environment. Besides, as you start to expand participation in DevOps, you already have a handful of people in mind to make the voyage smoother. You know who I’m talking about. Yes, the ones you see talking to the development teams on a regular basis, checking in to see how things are going, seeing what changes are coming down the pipe, asking what the application users are saying about performance, and even offering to assist as needed. These people should be your initial picks to join the DevOps team. Specifically, you should find DBAs who are already engaged, bring them on board, and then let them help you select and onboard other DBAs when needed. Having a trusted and respected DBA doing the team’s bidding for additional DBA talent is likely to result in volunteers. People want to work with people with whom they have an established relationship. Leverage previous successful working relationships to resourcefully construct the DevOps team.

Reciprocal Teaching

Whether through formal methods such as classroom or virtual training, job shadowing, and mentoring; or through informal methods such as team discussions or presentations, teaching needs to be a frequent element of team integration. It is a given that IT and business teams have difficulty understanding each other without a common taxonomy. Even teams within IT often fail to understand each other. A developer discussing encapsulation or inheritance may totally perplex a DBA unfamiliar with object-oriented programming terminology. Never mind if you start talking about Agile, which is very new to many IT professionals. Likewise, a DBA ranting about developers “thrashing” the buffer cache is likely to see the “deer in the headlights” stare. While investigating a performance issue specific to a screen, a developer shared with a DBA that the drop-down window would display ten data elements from which the application user could select. As they looked at the code and then tested the code in a non-prod environment, they learned that the result set was millions of records. The million records would move from the database to the middle tier, and then the needed to rows would be pushed to the client application screen. When asking why millions of rows were being returned, the developer said that was a standard practice. After looking into other queries, the DBA soon found herself ranting to several development managers about the developers thrashing the buffer cache and the performance impact. After realizing that these managers did not understand DBA “technical” jargon, she determined that there was a better way to communicate the message. She scheduled a meeting a few days later, in which she put together a presentation deck outlining basic buffer cache concepts with visuals (see Figure 1) that demonstrated how large result sets can negatively impact not only the query requesting the data but also every aspect of the database performance. After the DBA spent an hour walking the developers through the presentation and answering questions, these developers understood the impact of less-selective queries. As days and weeks passed, and often when the DBA was visiting the developer realm, developers would jokingly remind each other to not thrash that buffer cache unless they wanted the DBA to get after them. Although the training was succinct and simplified, it closed the language gap, resulting in improved query selection criteria, smaller result sets, and less buffer cache “thrashing.” The point is that even people in the same industry do not necessarily speak the same language. DevOps introduces another language gap that requires purposeful definition to keep all members of the team aligned. This book presumes that readers are technically savvy and already familiar with DevOps and the core terminology, but it may not be true as they begin working with DBAs. Accelerating DBA engagement requires DBAs to understand the DevOps principles and foundational constructs. Experienced DevOps team members need to educate DBAs on processes, continuous integration and delivery, and the implemented toolset. Demonstrating how code is built, tested, integrated, and released helps DBAs determine where best to interject changes supporting the code cycle. DBAs also need early notification when system changes are necessary, allowing time for the reconfiguration to be completed, tested, security approved, and automated for pipeline consumption.

Buffer cache thrashing Recruiting DBAs for DevOps

Figure 1. Buffer cache thrashing

Molding DBAs

Adding DBAs to Dev Ops teams gives the DevOps team members the opportunity to “mold” the DBAs. Previous challenges of getting a DBA to even consider a nonrelational database solution becomes an opportunity for the DBA to learn new database technologies. Just climbing over the fence gives new perspective. Once DBAs buy into DevOps, learn the processes, and fully understand how database work can benefit the business, instead of the development team (the previous customer), the pipeline expands from database change introduction, growing the code base as DBAs check in database changes and infrastructure as code templates and scripts. Cycle time shrinks from database changes no longer being an outlier to the process. Deployments smooth out and complete faster as DBA work is automated.

DBA Value Proposition

DBA participation in DevOps draws in a critical application availability and performance contributor: the database. Involving DBAs means that application code is evaluated from a different perspective, especially calls to the database. Database changes become integrated code for continuous integration and exhaustive testing. DBAs can identify poorly executing queries and transactions and baseline production performance. They can get ahead of forthcoming code changes or new functionality by understanding the impact on the preprod environments, which gives DBAs time to analyze and implement performance-tuning enhancements before the additional load is present. Problems become challenges for a larger team, compiling more experiences and skills into the pool of contributors to determine root cause and deploy mitigation. DBAs’ experiences in other infrastructure areas add another layer of value by being able to assess the application and database by looking under the covers at the operating systems, storage, and network. Further discussion is ahead. Closer and constant DBA and DevOps team collaboration improves product outcomes, stability, security, and performance, which lead to happier customers and improved business results. As DBAs better understand the business team’s use of the product, building a disaster recovery solution or recovery from backup strategy can be customized Giving developers the freedom to fire up virtual hosts with different database options enables consideration of risk early in the process. A developer wanting to test a new data access service can test, retry, and destroy the virtual host to start over with a fresh host if necessary. DBAs scripting different template options applicable to different data platforms shifts experimentation from production too early in the pipeline.

Recruiting DBAs for DevOps

DBAs are a good match for DevOps. Driven to improve performance, reliability, and system stability; and matched with the skills to adapt, analyze, and execute process improvements, DBAs can expand the DevOps team’s capabilities; reduce cycle time by pulling database changes into the continuous integration process; contribute new test cases for improved bug detection; and get ahead of performance, load, and other operational challenges before production impact. By investing in DBAs joining DevOps teams, DevOps leaders and engineers increase influence and impact on the business. Applying proven DevOps processes to database changes, build templates, database selections, and broader platform considerations presents new opportunities that may have been previously resisted by the same DBAs. DBAs get excited when their contribution can grow, they can grow, and the business can grow.

 

This article is an excerpt from DevOps, DBAs, and DBaaS – Managing Data Platforms to Support Continuous Integration printed with permission by Apress Publishing.

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About the author

Mike Cuppett

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Michael S. Cuppett is a Business Resiliency Architect for a Fortune 15 healthcare organization, where he currently strives to apply DevOps methodologies to disaster recovery and operational resilience programs. He was previously charged with application and infrastructure reliability, availability, recoverability, and performance as a Solutions Engineer. Cuppett draws on three decades of experience as a DBA and IT engineer in the U.S. Army and the private sector, culminating in a succession of management and senior technology positions at large companies in database administration, solutions engineering, and disaster recovery. Cuppett writes frequent articles on Oracle DBA issues and the business dimension of DevOps for LogicalRead, Oracle Technology Network, DevOps Digest, and APM Digest. He received a B.S. degree in Management and Computer Information Systems from Park University.

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